Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Waldorf Astoria Hotel

VANISHING

The historic Waldorf Astoria hotel is about to vanish. Not physically, but spiritually. It was purchased last year by the Chinese corporation Anbang Insurance Group. They plan to take 1,100 rooms and convert them into condos. The remaining few hundred rooms will be upgraded into a "high-end, boutique hotel that appeals to international (and Asian) travelers," according to The Real Deal.

The hotel will close March 1, making February 28 the last night you can stay there for the next three years. And, of course, it will never be the same. Prices will certainly rise (it's reasonably priced right now). As Kim Velsey recently wrote in "The Death of New York’s Grand Hotels" for Surface magazine, "a condo and a hotel...occupy vastly different positions in the emotional terrain of a city."

So I said goodbye to the old Waldorf by spending the night.



I checked in at 3:00 p.m. and didn't leave the hotel until 10:00 the next morning. Checking in, the clerk saw my New York address and laughed, telling me that many New Yorkers are reserving rooms, coming to say goodbye. She gave me coupons for free drinks, "from one New Yorker to another." I dropped my backpack in my room, a small and serviceable space with a soft bed and a deep bathtub.

I had a free drink at the Peacock cocktail lounge, with its pianist playing Cindi Lauper's "Time After Time" and its American tourists doing nothing of interest, and then I went wandering.



Wandering the corridors and staircases of the Waldorf is a great pleasure. You don't have to be a guest to do it--they're very permissive of the curious public--but it helps to feel like you belong. There are no locked doors here.

I drifted through rooms for conference meetings and wedding parties, lined in mirrors and topped with chandeliers, the art deco details filled with flowers and women's faces. I went down into the Marco Polo room, a dark and abandoned club, and up into the empty Grand Ballroom with its red velvet balconies and tattered stage where I once saw Buzz Aldrin tell the story of his walk on the Moon.



I looked through the shop windows of Elliot Stevens, an antiques and art gallery recently accused of selling knock-offs to tourists in the grand old New York tradition. Amid the wares, with their massive price tags, were signs proclaiming "Going Out of Business" and "End of an Era at the Waldorf Hotel."

I walked the empty South Lounge corridor, where no one goes, and where there's a plaque for the National Mothers Hall of Fame, dedicated in 1970 by the American Mothers Committee and filled with names you've never heard, like Mrs. Elizabeth Poe Cloud and Dr. Mary Martin Sloop, those once celebrated mothers.



The halls of the hotel are filled with Waldorf history--photographs, artifacts, an old telephone with the old exchange (ELdorado-5), a program for a Frank Sinatra concert (at the Wedgwood Room), fancy soup spoons and door knobs and ledger books rotted with age.

I kept wondering: Where will it all go? The place is one big museum. Will the Chinese corporation take it all? Will they dump it the way workers once dumped the apartment of my dead neighbor, the wreckage of his long life piled on the sidewalk?



I had another free drink at the Peacock lounge and ate the obligatory Waldorf Salad, listening to the great lobby clock chime each 15 minutes, noting the rapid passage of time. What will the Chinese businessmen do with that clock?

Made in the 1800s, it is topped by the Statue of Liberty and ringed with the faces of American presidents, plus Queen Victoria, along with a bunch of bulls and bears, and bas relief scenes of suspension bridges and athletic men with curly mustaches.



Will the public still be welcomed into the lobby to enjoy that clock?

Once the place is converted to condos and upscaled, will average New Yorkers still be free to roam the halls and ballrooms? Or will the Waldorf die under glass, domed beneath a bell jar of chilly international capital? At the Peacock lounge, the hostess said, "I heard the condos will go for $6 million apiece." Or did she say $60 million? No price surprises anymore. New York, the city that Mayor Bloomberg called a "luxury product," is going to the highest bidder, to international billionaires who buy it up then leave it empty, a vertical ghost town that no one enjoys. All of its treasures are being taken from us. All the life drained away.

When I woke up at the Waldorf the next morning, I could not wait to leave. I'm tired of funerals.





21 comments:

Scout said...

I wish I could have seen the original Waldorf (and the subsequent original Waldorf Astoria) at 34th and Fifth. But it was torn down in 1929 to make room for that johnny-come-lately, the Empire State Building. I've stayed at the current one, and attended many events there. It's a lovely place, but it seems to have come down in quality in the last decade. Old World refinement has been shunned by the wealthy for glossy, modern Trump-style hotels.

Carmine said...

. . . very sad and until recently, would have been considered unthinkable! . . . and, I'm afraid it's indicative as well.

James said...

There was the Plaza - another aging diva of hostelry. It was affordable - particularly if you took a room up in the giant mansard roof. The tea service the palm court was as charming a thing as New York ever produced, and it too was mainly affordable (for shame!!). I recall its National Content Liquidators sale, when it closed, making the place look like an exhumed passenger ship wreck - everything piled up in strange places. I remember one room that had a rack of employee uniforms with names still sewn onto the pockets. It was the feeling of death and waste - a sort of Hotel Chernobyl. When the Plaza did re-open, I remember the strange acrid smell of new materials that had been stretched about for the nuveau riche who wouldn't have noticed it, so long as the crystal at hand was Baccarat. Everything was spotless and entirely without depth.

The Waldorf-Astoria is another such sad tale. In the 80's you could take advantage of the bargain rates afforded old hotels. The week I arrived in New York there was a hotel workers' strike in progress. I remember sitting in the Peacock Lounge listening to a woman play Cole Porter's piano. The house had little cards on the tables apologizing for the lack of some services. I'd say there were maybe 20 people in the lounge listening with me.

The Police: "When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best Of What Is Still Around". They wrote this some 37 years ago. What's still around? Find it and take some pictures.

Patty Potter said...

My Grandfather opened up The Waldorf Astoria, as resident Manager and Vice President, in 1931. This is so sad. His portrait is in the lobby and I often go by to say hi. They won't even let us have or but the portrait. Th ochestra sand Happy Birthday to me in the Empire Room on my 7th birthday. This is where I visited my grandparents. My parents wedding reception was there. Just a few memories sold to China. Sad...so sad.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Patty, can you write to me via email at jeremoss@yahoo.com? I'd like to hear more about this. Thank you.

Tal Hartsfeld said...

Nothing is sacred anymore.
Not even a long-ongoing world-famous legacy.
What's next? The Empire State Building?

Andrew Porter said...

I believe several areas of the Waldorf are now interior landmarks, so they at least won't change.

Downtowner said...

My grandmother worked on 34th and 5th in the '30s and watched them tear down the old Waldorf and subsequently build the Empire State Building in its place.

John M said...

A good reminder that it's not just mom and pop shops that need saving. Sometimes it's a massive New York landmark.

ABS said...

We stayed there this week as well, and I spent some time writing in the lobby. It felt hard for me to leave, like I was leaving part of our identity as a city behind when I walked out -- very emotional.

OvertheTop said...

My father performed in a Tribute to General Omar Bradley in a ballroom there in 1946. I should go visit!

Chuck Kronengold said...

In years past, the POTUS would stay at the Waldorf-Astoria because deep below is allegedly a railroad siding with an armored train for safe getaway in case of attack....

Richard Federico said...

Another landmark falls while New York continues to lose it's history, it's identity, and it's unique appeal. More housing and retail for the ultra rich while the greater and ever growing majority struggle to survive paycheck to paycheck. I always thought the Waldorf represented wealth, luxury, and status. I guess I was thinking small and was just not aware how much more profitable the world has become for the elite class.

If you are one of these world class globally important tycoon types, why stay at a hotel?!!.... even a grand majestic one at that? Making reservations is so inconvenient and old school, also nothing says "just passing through" like checking your bags at a hotel. After all, with your great ability to make money you can just buy a condo unit in one and choose your own drapes and furnishings! Hey, you might even have your new tasteful designer interior featured in another fine living publication for the working and servant classes to drool over!!!

Looks like another necessary step in the right direction to make sure the uber rich can attain comfortable and stylish housing. Also appears that the once prestigious New York hotel industry is now under a new kind of management and in the skilled hands of the industrious airbnb landlord. Oh New York, you just keep getting better!

Catherine Guerard said...

That is truly sad Patty. The very least they could do is give you your grandfather's portrait. My heart goes out to you. Perhaps you can publish a book with some photos of this place in its glory and some of your beloved stories. (and maybe collect stories and photos from others as well)
Catherine G.

Donnie Moder said...

Another great blog entry.

Anastasia Klimchynskaya said...

I stayed at the Waldorf Astoria recently for two nights; I was making a special trip to NYC, and since I had a lot of Hilton points, figured I'd give this hotel a try before it closed.

I must say, I wasn't actually super impressed. One of the reasons I wanted to stay there was precisely the old world charm, but it felt like the hotel was desperately trying to cling to it, but had lost it. The building is just plain old, and not in a way that's charming: you could see cracks in the wall and the pain, the carpets were faded and full of stains (and some of the ugliest carpet we could see), and the decor in the rooms was just plain outdated. It felt, honestly, cheap. We also tried the bars, since we had a lot of drink coupons, but again, I couldn't think of any reason why those cocktails were $25. There was nothing special about them or the atmosphere.

Don't get me wrong, I wanted to see what you see, but I worry that the old-world charm is gone from hotels, period, and having an old hotel in an old building won't change that. The role hotels play has drastically changed, and so has what I need in a hotel for it to feel 'glitzy.'

But I'm curious to see what the Waldorf looks like after the renovation.

Steve Cohen said...

Enjoyed reading your article! I've been performing my show "Chamber Magic" in a private Towers suite in the Waldorf Astoria for the past 16 years. Yes, a magic show in a private suite. The Waldorf has become my second home, since I sleep in the hotel after my shows are over. To date, I've performed 4850 shows in the Waldorf, with over half million guests. As the days wind down to closing, I find myself wandering the halls, and touching the surfaces - fabrics, marble, brass, wrought iron - to make a final physical contact with this grand place. I'm fortunate that to have signed a new contract with the New York Palace hotel on Madison Avenue. For the remainder of my days, I'll always be grateful and loyal to the people who helped support my peculiar idea of staging an intimate magic show in the Waldorf. I like to think that we were a perfect match.

79rigid said...

Patty,if I was able to get to the hotel before it closes I'd steal that portrait for you.

ABS said...

Jeremiah, do you know the status of this preservation initiative? http://ny.curbed.com/2016/10/28/13462356/waldorf-astoria-hotel-interior-landmarks-nyc

Creativemind28 said...

To expand (and paraphrase) Richard Federico's comment on how the world's elite travel preferences have changed from "just passing through" to "buy a condo for the working and servant classes to drool over" - it appears that, for this new gauche set of nouveau riche, it's more than just showing off the luxuries that they wrest away from the rest of us...there is a sense of an imperious "you -- stay over there," subliminal messaging that inhabits these new luxury spaces. Places like the Plaza Hotel, the St. Regis and the Waldorf Astoria had a grandeur that was as hospitable as the inclinations of their elite patrons; the upper-class of this time were brought up to be gracious, tasteful and mannerly; never crude, vulgar, and ostentatious. These establishments never asked if you were tourist or local. Most times you didn't even have to spend the night in order to experience its opulence. That warmth, graciousness and accessibility are the key points missing now with much of the new luxury design of today.

I read the Surface article. Beautifully written, and it drove home the above to me as I remembered my days as a fourteen year old girl with a camera, going to the Plaza and the St. Regis with no one batting an eye. These hotels felt like home away from home for me. Wood paneled rooms are warm; so are upholstered chairs, large jacquard couches, and even gold filigree. Their history was imprinted in each chair, in each table, in the carvings of each room. This kind of historic luxury is welcoming and magical. It invites you to relax, have a brandy and look at it's design and creation. You were encouraged to be curious. You look now at these uninspired battery-shaped towers with all of the glass, steel, and chrome (not to mention so much GRAY, WHITE, and ICE BLUE everywhere), and you get the distinct chill of hostility. Looking in the reflective glass of a nouveau riche condominium that absolutely refuses to let you see anyone other than yourself, and the distinct sense of "Fuck you, knave. You can't sit with us. Don’t ask any questions," is a hushed whisper that rings loud and clear. The High Line is a perfect example of this - a hallway of oversized condominiums blocking what would have been a magnificent city view - this clearly emphasizes the "This city is OURS, and you don't belong here," context that Mayor Bloomberg sought to cement as the new New York attitude, which is his very own elitist worldview. It is seen in the absurd furniture designs of today - the stark, minimalist design with its sharp angles and corners, that appears as though it has been made to mock the very experience of being human - the dainty, abstract-shaped chairs, couches, and tables designed not for warm hospitality but to remind you that your time in any given space you are allowed to access is limited, because for the owner time is money and that is far more important than wasting time coming down to earth and, heaven's forbid, become human for once. This robotic disconnection from one's own humanity is what plays out in today's luxury design; it's message a subliminal one that drives the attitudes of these elite, since the contempt rife in the message of "You can't sit with US," is not something that they believe they have to tell you in words - you should already know that your sort is not welcome in their glossy, inhuman world, and they leave it up to their rooms to tell you that – without the elite never having to step foot in them.

Pam Felcher said...

Now it's opening in LA, so you know it's really over.